Pop: Lou Reed Shepherd's Bush Empire, London

Lou Reed made me laugh. It was about half-way through his set, during the flippant bar-room blues of "I Love You Suzanne". Relaxed and smiling, he began singing falsetto, alternating it with a parody of his usual deep rumble. It was funny. It was uncomfortable. It was not what you expect from the Dark Prince, the author of "Heroin" and a dozen other hymns to the low life.

The legend of Lou Reed is not about laughter. It is about Andy Warhol and the Velvet Underground, dark alleys and drug dealers; about a street poet whose songs of sado-masochism skewed pop music.

Having lived (and nearly died) on the legend for many years, he made a shocking return to form on New York - an early Nineties classic on which he fulfilled his potential as an urban storyteller.

So never mind the new stuff, Lou Reed carries the weight of the legend every time he performs. We wanted to see him look like Lou, in doom-black jeans and T-shirt, with black hair framing his death-mask of a face. We were not disappointed.

We wanted to watch him create a maelstrom of sound without breaking sweat, weaving words at its centre without raising his voice. He did that too, on "Sweet Jane", an inspired choice of opener and a swaggering reminder of his pedigree. A snarling version of "Dirty Boulevard" from New York segued into "Waiting for the Man" and "Vicious". How's that for a three- chord medley with attitude? This was Lou Reed in iconic mode.

And then he broke the frame. It became clear he was no longer interested in the legend. He even smiled, during "NYC Man", a funky manifesto from his latest album, Set the Twilight Reeling. He is a new man. As the excruciating chorus of "Trade In" puts it, he wants a 14th chance at life: "I've met a woman with a thousand faces/ and I want to make her my wife."

Lucky Lou - but in letting one myth die, he confirmed another: the one that says happy artists make mediocre art. Some of the new songs were beautiful, bitter-sweet things, but he had traded his wit for psycho-babble and his savage irony for sincerity. That voice, at its best so coolly aloof, was now strained.

A trade-off, then. He wanted to sing his new songs, we wanted the legend. He gave us a bit of both, and left. It was a competent display, but no more. There were three encores, and one of them was "Walk on the Wild Side". Never meet your heroes.

COLE MORTON

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